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  September 4, 2001

Would-Be Novelist Achieved Literary
Distinction as Chaucer Scholar

Growing up as a teenager in the 1950s in the politically savvy state of Massachusetts, it's not surprising that Carl David Benson, professor of English, had a keen and early interest in politics and history.

"As a good Massachusetts son, I had more interest in history and politics than in literature," he says.

But an experience during the summer of 1959, right before his senior year in high school, caused him to change direction.

That summer he read The Web & The Rock by Thomas Wolfe, one of America's greatest 20th-century novelists. "Up until that summer, I'm not certain that I had read many novels," recalls Benson. "Suddenly, I was excited and started reading literature."

For a long time, he adds, he dreamed of becoming a novelist.

Although his career as a novelist was shelved along the way, he emerged instead in the literary field as one of the most distinguished scholars in the world on the English poet Chaucer, considered to be one of the most important figures in English literature.

A graduate of Harvard University - where Thomas Wolfe earned a master's degree in 1922 - Benson spent last year as a visiting professor at Harvard, teaching Chaucer to undergraduates.

Benson was the first in his family to go to college. It was an experience, he says, that opened up an entire new world to him.

"I've never left the university world since," he says.

It was an undergraduate class on Chaucer at Harvard in the 1960s that put Benson on the literary road to medieval literature. "It was love at first sight," he says.

Building on that classroom experience, he delved deeper and deeper into medieval stories, especially on Troy.

After Harvard, he went on to study at the University of California-Berk eley, where he earned both an M.A. and a Ph.D. There he was greatly influenced by two professors he recalls as both "inspirational and wildly passionate."

One was Alain Renoir, grandson of Pierre Auguste Renoir, the French impressionist painter and sculptor, who taught Benson about medieval English literature. The other professor was Charles Muscantine who, Benson says, read poetry extraordinarily well and trained him to do the same.

"He also taught me that all the research in the world isn't important if you can't bring it into the classroom. I've tried to remember to follow his advice. I believe what he said is true."

Benson's professional summary reads like a "Who's Who" in literature. There's more than a dozen honors and distinctions, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. He's on the editorial boards of the Chaucer Review and the Columbia Encyclopedia, third edition on middle English literature; and a trustee of the New Chaucer Society.

Benson is the author of nearly 200 publications: books and monographs, journal articles, and reviews. He has published in a wide area of medieval studies, from Chaucer to wallpaintings in the Middle Ages.

Thomas Jambeck, associate professor of English and co-director of the Medieval Studies Program, says Benson turned Medieval Studies into a prominent interdisciplinary program.

"To use a metaphor of Professor Benson's favorite sport - baseball - not only does he cover all the bases, but his work in every way is major league," says Jambeck.

He adds that Benson has brought to the University other leading international medievalists, providing students with the opportunity to learn from the best scholars in the world.

This year, UConn celebrated his accomplishments by naming him a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor, one of five faculty recognized for exceptional distinction in scholarship, teaching and service.

His professionalism, though, he traces to his father, a former tool and die maker in Braintree, Mass. "My dad represented the ideal in craftsmanship," says Benson. "He taught me to try and do things the right way. I've tried to emulate him."

Claudia G. Chamberlain

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